Croatian Life Letters by Jodie Toohey: YA Book Review by Shawn StJean


When I was a boy–30 and more years ago–many bookstores and libraries did not host a collection designated specifically for teens.  Aside from books by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson (both of whom require a high level of literacy to enjoy, are plot-driven, and definitely meant for boys) the vast majority of what I read was composed for adults.

Clearly, my past does not make me an expert on YA Fiction.  But I feel fortunate to have been randomly assigned to evaluate this short, 130-page work by the IndiePENdents organization, as part of its application of books for its approval seal.

I expect, just as most readers of Seventeen Magazine appear to be ages 12-14, a novel that follows the epistolary exchange of two girls (Ami and Nada,) ages 15 and 14, would probably be of more interest to the pre-teen set than those actually attending high school.   Ami has never been kissed by a boy before, and her innocent “get a boyfriend” scheme may have better amused this 45-year-old man than it would most of the U.S. sophomores out there.

This book has several features to offer teens that raise it above the norm.  First, it is set in 1991, the year Croatia declared itself independent of the Republic of Yugoslavia.  Not only, then, does it offer some instructive European history from the half-decade before most of its target audience was born, but it also unfolds in a world where true pen-pals (paper, ink, and postage stamps) were still viable: no internet or cellular telephones.  When people in your life left, they were, at least for a time and sometimes forever, gone.

The heart of the narrative lies in its juxtaposition of the trials of the girls from two different cultures.  Ami’s parents are recently divorced and she must adjust to the custody schedule, her favorite baby cousin has died, and she’s entertaining thoughts of suicide.  Meanwhile, Orthodox Catholic Nada resides in Rijeka, insulated a bit from the war-torn district of Dubrovnik, but not immune to racial and religious hate crimes.  She lies awake at night thinking of the mailed and telephoned death-threats her parents hide from her, her father has fled to Italy to avoid induction, and her basement is occupied by a pregnant couple desperate to keep their new family together.  As Ami writes to her friend, “I’m grateful my hell is only in my head. . . .You have no control over your hell” (71).

Poignant stuff, when compared to the series-vampire and werewolf fare that monopolizes the shelves–some of it admittedly well-written–but not particularly designed to edify kids preparing to enter a harsh, actual world in the 21st Century.  I was particularly pleased at Toohey’s corrective to the American view that Serbs were the sole aggressors in the Croatian war (and this done in a palatable, non-didactic manner.)  Be the truth of this interpretation as it may, one rejoices to see the spirit of inquiry raised for young people–if they wish to know more, a little outside research can only add to the enjoyment here.

Recommended ****


Guest Post: Goddard Graves Reviews Clotho’s Loom: “A Serious Book”

ImageAuthor Goddard Graves resides among the mountains of Vermont, and, even well into this 21st Century, enjoys his reading and publishing the old-fashioned way: as the product of pulped trees.  Fortunately, we could oblige him, with a copy of the recently published Clotho’s Loom in mass market paperback (available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and for order at your local library and bookstore.)  Graves’ own novel, Harmony Junction, is a massive work that may especially delight music lovers, and lovers of witty dialogue–a review will eventually appear in this space.  Meanwhile, it can be obtained directly from the author, who writes prolifically, under the name of Harry MacDonald, on LibraryThing.  A link to his original review and profile appears at the end of this post.

You’re on, Mr. Graves.

In the interests of Full Disclosure, let me note three things. A: this is a serious book, which deserves not merely reading, but deserves, even demands serious attention. B: this Review will be extended and modified over time, but appears now in its present state, as I think further delay would be unfair both to the Author and to potential readers. C: while this in no way prejudices my evaluation, the Author exchanged novels with me, on my suggestion; I expect that he will find mine equally challenging, though for rather different reasons.

If one doesn’t recognize the allusion in this book’s title, or is unwilling to look it up, then that person probably lacks the moxie to make much of this five-hundred page psycho-philosophical work. Those who DO recognize Clotho, the Fate who spins the thread of human destiny, should understand that this memorable story is a prolonged — a hostile critic might say — excessively prolonged, even distended — meditation in why and how we travel our various paths. For reasons which we must accept — lest the whole massive structure fall apart before it rises — the two protagonists, William and the curiously-named Nexus, are almost entirely devoid of even the simplest ability to make choices. Odd as that may seem at first blush, this isn’t an implausible human situation. Soon enough, however, we know that we’re not in Kansas anymore when we find that these two young Americans (born, say in the late 1960s), have somehow managed to become married to each other: again, not appetizing, either in literature or in life, but still not totally indigestible.

Then however, things take an abrupt turn, and in one of this Author’s most skilled moves, he throws William into the nightmarish situation of being re-inducted into the United States Armed Forces — after having already served almost twenty years ago. Even without the Hell-drift which is American life during the “War on Terror”, this is pretty scary stuff. Now, though, for reasons we are left to ponder, essentially through the entire book, Will neither resists this action — nor even tells his wife about! She being not merely his Life’s companion, but also an attorney, would have reacted in any number of ways which any of us might do. But in the absence of information, she is simply (ha!) deserted, with the extra surprise of finding-out that she is pregnant. From that point, the story runs on parallel tracks, with William and Nexus working-out their various destinies, she as an attorney in a huge firm, described in endless mind-numbing detail, he as a sharpshooter/sniper in some unidentified theatre of war East of Suez, though I suppose it might just be Somalia.

Till now I’ve deliberately withheld a vital piece of information, lest a reader break into hysterical giggling and vow never to touch this book. As wild as it seems, far from cooperating in his new call to arms, William lets himself be recruited for the unidentified Enemy, and is smuggled out of the US to undergo training — described with tremendous, draining, nightmarish power — and then posted into rough country to kill a local war-lord. He does his job, is terribly wounded, and comes home.

Which is a little like saying that New York City is a wide spot in the road from Albany to Trenton. William’s experiences and the various states of consciousness are so complex, that by the end of the book — and I must at this point omit any further reference to Nexus and her pregnancy, except to say that there IS a sort of re-union — I suspected that I had missed, despite close reading, a point where the events had lost any connection to external reality, and were taking place almost entirely in William’s head. Whew.

In addition to being a long-thought-out piece, CLOTHO’S LOOM is also a pretty well-written one. I believe I owe it to the Author, and to the reader, to return to this Review and quote some of his better-wrought prose. At the same time, I must say that the further he reaches for a figure of speech, the likelier he is to fall on his face — and so he does, sometimes: splat.

OK, I think I’ve given the temptin’ taste which I want you all to share. Anybody who’s attempted serious reviewing knows that the toughest books are the ones worth reading despite serious flaws, and CLOTHO’S LOOM is surely one of those. There is so much mind-candy passed of as fiction these days that we should all be grateful for some serious with some real substance — even if it requires extra chewing.

A practical matter: Shawn StJean (pronounced “Saint Gene”) is a LibraryThing participant, and copies of his work can ultimately be obtained by communicating with him. I think it’s also on eBay (as a Buy It Now item). Incidentally, I for one hope to see more of his work available soon.

This review originally appeared on Librarything:

Thanks very much to Goddard Graves for appearing here as our first guest-poster!


Weapons For Writers


To compare the act of writing to doing battle might seem hyperbolic, but I do think the difference is one of degree, not kind.  It’s amazing, the widely varying and sometimes adverse conditions folks write under–mothers fit it in during nap-time, others dictate in the car, longhanders still do exist, and I even know one fellow who can’t do without the clackety-clack of an ancient, manual typewriter.  My own novel was composed in at least a dozen separate locations.

Yet we authors can be our own worst enemies.  A little planning is worth a lot of execution.  There are a few items–physical gear, and otherwise–I would deem essential for every writer (besides some raw talent, or as the author of Beowulf put it, a well-stocked “word-hoard,”) that will aid in deflecting the incoming flak.  It’s instructive to reflect on how similar the support needs of writers and soldiers often are.

A warm, soft pair of socks–no holes.  There’s a reason someone once equated nervousness with “cold feet.”  Currently, my personal favorites are a pair of thick wool Carhartts–but then again, I live in upstate New York.

Chair.  Not too comfy, but with good back support.  Arms help, but a recliner will put you to sleep (the writer’s curse is to sleep always at the wrong time).

Cold water is best, but a continuous source of hot drinks works.  Choices?  As Giles on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer once stated a request for coffee, “No, tea is soothing. I wish to be tense.” (and if you notice a motif of “heat,” in this list, it probably has to do with poor circulation from all that sitting.  Remember, the blood must be kept flowing to the HEAD.)

A selection of light reading–NOT your own, or even similar–by the bedside, to help battle insomnia, and get rested.

As Virginia Woolf said, a room of one’s own is essential.  But sometimes they beat on the door.  Two or three alternate places to write–hopefully at least one outdoors–and a laptop computer or stack of yellow legal pads, for portability.  As with your body, keep your temperament flexible.

Small notebook or e-device for jotting down inspirational ideas that strike you while stuck on the march.

Not everyone gets writer’s block (symptoms can include tiredness, cabin fever, headache, anxiety) and there’s certainly no cure-all.  For me, a good walking trail or other means of stimulating, physical exercise does wonders, even if you can only manage twice weekly.

Dictionary–online, paperbound, whatever–if you think you don’t need one, you’ve outsmarted yourself.  Or you’re a writer who doesn’t do much writing.

A work ethic–even 1/2 hour per day, every day, will get the job done eventually, and planned days off are a good practice.  Otherwise, hit those keys on a strict, regular schedule you can really keep.

Procrastination and distraction are greater enemies than lack of time in the first place.  So, as damned hard as it might be, at first, notice the “off” switch on your wi-fi, cell phone, TV.  USE THEM.

A sense of humor, patience, and perspective.  Somehow, you already came to the decision to write, to nurture your own soul, rather than swell someone’s purse (your own or someone else’s)–and if you’ve actually begun writing, you’ve overcome the two most fearsome obstacles.  That poem, story, article, or novel may never see wide circulation, or even publication—but cherish the experience, the doing—because you really are enjoying a privilege.  Here I shift the metaphor I began with, because writers don’t destroy, after all; they maintain our culture, and they create it.  And as Robert Pirsig so insightfully phrased it, “The motorcycle you’re working on is yourself.”


2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award–2,000 of 10k New Books Advance to 2nd Round

Image10,000 books have been entered by their authors and publishers, in five categories.  Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean, published under the Glas Daggre Imprint, is among 400 in the General Fiction category selected for the second round, and will attempt to move on to the quarter-finals of the ABNA (100 will be selected from each category, announced @ March 12, 2013.)

List of 2nd-rounders:  Congrats everyone!


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Marvel’s Mega-Events—Stan, Stop the Madness!


I’ve been reading comics for 40 years. No, they didn’t call them “graphic novels” then, in some attempt to lend them the air of legitimacy.  I well remember the first “real” graphic novel: The Death of Captain Marvel. Whoa—a super-hero dying of cancer, with the cover image an homage to Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pietà, the Dying Christ (religious allegory a specialty Jim Starlin’s, inherited from his Adam Warlock forbears)—that was a next-level event.  It signaled a demand for literacy among the next generation of readers—kids who were growing up with the challenging and allusive lyrics of Springsteen, Rush, and Pink Floyd, and watching Star Trek in syndication—those same kids who are now grown up, many still reading.

At age 15, I could barely afford to buy this deluxe-format beast, of course, at the $5.95 cover price.  They were 15 cents when I began as a kindergartner, just up from 12 cents, and I scraped the money together for my first, personal issues by tipping up the clothes-dryer, and by plunging my little paw between the bench seats of the family sedan, and later shoveling snow for the neighbors.

Take it from me, Civil War (2006-07—seven brief issues, but it stretched to every mag Marvel published at the time, dozens of books) was the best thing Marvel has produced since the bronze age.  If you haven’t read it yet, I envy you the experience—it saved comics for me.   It could have been just another 1980s “Secret War”—again, I’m dating myself.  And Secret War was not bad, for its time, but it wasn’t written for adults —not really.  The coven of creators behind Civil War brought us something far more epic, far more mature and thoughtful, than just two big groups of costumed adventurers rumbling against each other.  I distinctly recall, aside from the death of Captain America, which functioned as an epilogue, several moments in particular: Sue Storm/Richards (The Invisible Woman) telling her husband, Reed (Mr.Fantastic): “I’ve never been so disappointed in you.”  Peter Parker joining the wrong side and embracing technology over intuition, because he believed he was doing the right thing.  Captain America clarifying for us that a real patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.  Family member against family member, and every worthwhile character trait that decades of creative teams made part of the Marvel mythology, drawn upon, epitomized by those moment of conflict.

Well, they couldn’t leave well enough alone.  A succession of crossover mega-events has followed, in a blatant attempt to sell overpriced magazines (the ridiculous four-dollar cover price is a subject for another lament.)   World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Fear Itself, Avengers vs. X-Men, just to name the biggies.  No.  These things should come once per decade, at most—like they say in the mafia, “every once in awhile, to get rid of the bad blood.”  It takes away from the really fine moments in them to dilute the Marvel Universe this way.  An epic is more than the running time of the movie or the number of pages between the covers–it’s what’s at stake.  And I’m not talking about the destruction of the Earth by Kree and Skrulls, either–I’m talking about what our youngsters–the living heroes of tomorrow, learn from the experience.

Now they’re rebooting—I think—New Avengers.  Again.  Seriously.  The New-new-new Avengers.  What used to be Marvel’s best book, but, like some over-circulated photocopy,  more diffuse and unclear with each new iteration.  And how young does a kid need to be before he’ll fall for the old “I have issue #1!” scam, anymore?  Then, you’re taking candy from babies.

In the final analysis, every real hero is an individual, not part of some mob.  Read the immortal Amazing Spider-Man #33.  Stan Lee is a hero of mine—I’ve written about him elsewhere.   Back when he was a writer and leader, and not a media mogul doing fun film-cameos and leaving the important decisions to bean-counters, he was one of those human beings with what folks living through the ‘60s and ‘70s called soul.  He could actually inspire brand-loyalty in children, ones sensing the tepidness of the competition across town, great as some of their characters might be.  But, as has been said of many heroes in many tales: where is he now?  What soul gem can resurrect him?




ITunes Picks Up Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean


Which means, of course, IPod, IPad, and IPhone goodness for the novel, and a major alternative to the .epub-based online stores.



Stuffs Indie Writers Do, or Ten Eccentric Behaviors of Self-Published Authors


Feel free to add your own in the comments section!


Surpass, in creativity, even your best passages by the means of procrastinating the writing of them.

Check e-mail, with a feeling of hope, 7X in the morning, review venues 3X, sales figures 1X, social media in reverse-proportion to how much drafting/editing you’re actually getting done.

 Keep a tab of constantly open to make sure you just used that word from deep in your vocabulary correctly.

Revere hot beverages as the nectar of the gods, in a vain attempt not to gain weight from so much perching over a desk.

Know by experience which works better on you: aspirin, ibuprofin, acetominofen, or whiskey.  As a famous author once told me, “You don’t have to be an alcoholic to be a good writer–but it certainly seems to help!”

Even though you’re a throwback, you become conversant with software you never thought you’d touch with a ten-foot finger.

Own a keyboard that has survived the crumbs of your entire dietary menu, as well as a few spills, and which therefore openly disgusts everyone but you.

Perseverate over whether that word you “kinda” coined will make it past the editor, even if it’s you.

“Give away” books at a net cost to yourself of minus $xxx, yet still claim “Books sales are getting better.”


Meet people and make friends you never would have, in all parts of the world, otherwise.